Last fall/winter, I decided that I wanted to start writing fiction again.
It’s been over 10 years since I spent my free time that way—crafting short stories, turning my dreams into miniature worlds, playing make-believe. And I missed it.
Which is why, after an emotional, trying month cycling across France from border to sea in September 2015, I re-dedicated myself to my creativity and started quietly thinking about what I wanted to write.
I didn’t start on fiction right away, but I did start playing with poetry again, writing silly little poems, playing with words and ideas. And a few months later, in Flagstaff, Arizona, January 2016, I stumbled serendipitously into another writer and was invited to join a short-term writing group. Every week we’d meet for food or wine or coffee and every week we’d each bring something, finished or unfinished, polished or unpolished, for the group to weigh in on.
I started writing again in earnest and asking myself week over week if there was a novel idea somewhere in me.
Turns out, there was.
It started with a question: What are you afraid of?
You can’t have a novel without conflict, after all. So what conflict would I explore? What scares me? What keeps me awake at night?
One of the answers, only half-formed, was this: I’m afraid, and have always been afraid, of accidentally ruining someone’s life.
What if an innocent misunderstanding, an accidental childhood lie, or a neutral-seeming action changed someone else’s life forever? If you’ve ever read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, you’ll know what I mean. In it, a child misunderstands something she sees and changes the course of everyone’s lives because of that misunderstanding.
Of all the fears I listed when I asked myself that question, this is the one that stuck with me: what if you accidentally ruined a life?
At the same time as I was asking myself that question, I was also reading everything I could get my hands on. For me, the inspiration to write has always come from reading great books. And when Amazon released their Man in the High Castle series, I finally went and read the book, which had been on my to-read list for years.
The idea behind the book was an utterly fascinating one: what if the Nazis had won World War II? I was wildly intrigued. What would the world be like? What would people’s day-to-day lives look like? How would people cope? How would those not welcome in the Reich escape? What would the average citizen think of the world they lived in?
I read the book. And I was disappointed.
The characters were shallow. There were very few glimpses into their lives. Instead, the book was mostly an exploration of an idea (spoiler alert – skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know the book’s point): multiple universes. It wasn’t about a world where the Nazis won the war. It was about a world where multiple universes exist. Which doesn’t make it a bad book, but does make it not at all what I was hoping for.
I was still intrigued by the premise, so I set out to find other alternate history novels. Turns out there are about a dozen books posing the question: What if the Axis powers won WWII? So I searched them out and read them (or tried to read them) and not a single one got to the heart of what I wanted to read.
Which is when an echo of my college professors rose up in my mind:
Write the book you want to read.
Can’t find the book you really want to read, the idea you want to explore, the question you want to spend time asking yourself over and over again? Then you write it.
And so I had my novel.
I was going to write a world where the Nazis won the war. I was going to start the story with a terrible accident in which two children irrevocably change the lives of everyone around them. And then I was going to follow those children as they grew up in the Reich and followed their own paths. What would their lives look like? Would they ever have a chance for redemption? Would a childhood accident change everything forever more? And was there a way out?
This is what I’ve spent stolen moments here and there throughout 2016 working on. And then I went on vacation in December and after a few days of no client work, no deadlines, no projects, my inspiration reached a peak and our month in Taormina turned into an accidental writing retreat. I went from perhaps 10,000 or 15,000 words to about 43,000 by the end of that month. I worked through the plot problems, fell in love with the characters, and walked away from my vacation only a few chapters away from the story’s climax and its ending.
Then I returned to Rome, where I returned to client projects and content marketing articles and website conundrums, but promised myself that I would make time to finish the first draft by the end of my stay. I was so close that I could feel the ending. There were just a few chapters left, a few conflicts that needed to come to their head, a few characters to sacrifice or save.
And so I flitted back into the book here and there between projects, adding a chapter here, a chapter there, until on the last Friday of January, inspiration swept me away and I wrote feverishly, building to an ending that wasn’t even exactly what I’d had in mind, but felt even more true.
The first draft was done, leaving characters lost or triumphant, saved or sacrificed, awakening to a new world, or not.
So when you imagine my last year, imagine it interspersed with feverish writing and even more feverish questions about how the world does work and would work and will work.
Imagine my vacation in Sicily as a time of leading characters into and through and out of and back into danger and difficulty.
Imagine me in Rome leading them toward where their story peaks, where everything either comes together or falls apart.
And then, perhaps, if you’re intrigued, imagine yourself book in hand. Because that is my hope for 2017.
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